Balancing horror and comedy is harder than it looks. The best examples of this sub-genre– classics like Evil Dead 2, An American Werewolf in London, Brain Dead (aka; Dead Alive) – made light of fright but still managed to generate scares, deliver bountiful gore, and be thoroughly entertaining in a composed way that satiated both horror hounds as well as those simply looking for a few good laughs. Humor has always been a part of horror, even if it just for a fleeting, well-timed moment of respite from the scares, but, as the 80s rolled on, it became something of a slasher staple, especially in films like the Nightmare on Elm Street and Child’s Play franchises, with said film’s protagonists dispatching their victims with funny (if not groan-inducing) one liners or through borderline cartoonish means. This, of course, gave way to the self-aware comedic stylings of the Scream films (and its imitators) as well as the brutally unfunny Scary Movie parodies. Ultimately, the torture porn genre arrived to wipe the smiles clean off of our faces, but, in the U.K., the horror/comedy was still alive and kicking, with fantastic offerings like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Shrooms, and Conor McMahon’s howlingly funny and twisted Dead Meat. With Stitches, McMahon returns to the roots of comedy/horror combining time honored slasher tropes with the over-the-top gore of Peter Jackson’s early offerings.
British funnyman Ross Noble stars as Stitches, a lewd and lascivious clown-for-hire whose act is almost as bad as his hygiene. Stitches is hired to perform at Tommy’s tenth birthday, where the young boy and his friends Vinny, Bulger, Richie, Kate, Sarah, and Paul have fun sabotaging Stitches show until one of their jokes goes too far, leading to the clown’s death. Racked with guilt, Tommy visits Stitches grave, where he happens upon a troupe of the clown’s peers carrying a glass vessel holding an egg painted to match Stitches signature makeup into a mausoleum. When Tommy sneaks inside, he witnesses a strange ritual before being caught by one of the clowns and warned that a clown killed during his act can never truly rest, and that, someday, he will return to complete his performance.
Flash forward six years later; Tommy (Tommy Knight) is now an introverted teenager on the verge of his sixteenth birthday, still haunted by the events of his youth, and forced to take medicine to combat his frequent hallucinations involving clowns. While he’s still best mates with Vinny (Shane Murray Corcoran), Richie (Eoghan McQuinn), and Bulger (Thommas Kane Byrnes), his other former friends have moved on, with Sarah (Roisin Barron) and Paul (Hugh Mulhern) becoming the school’s resident bullies, while Tommy’s unrequited love, Kate, has become something of a groupie for anyone who can carry a tune or strum a guitar.
Keen to Tommy’s obsession with Kate, and with a freshly developed interest in former-fatty, Mary (Lorna Dempsey), Vinny convinces a reluctant Tommy to take advantage of his mother going out of town and throw an impromptu birthday bash for himself. With the help of Richie and Bulger, the duo put together the biggest bash their little village has seen in ages, but, when an invitation finds its way to Stitches grave, the boys unknowingly invite the clown back for a blood-soaked encore.
Much like McMahon’s Dead Meat, Stitches is a bit hit-or-miss in the scripted jokes department, but, when it comes to inventive and hilariously gory kills, the film recalls the glory days of early Jackson and Raimi, with Noble’s hilarious, mostly improvised shtick making for a hilarious hybrid of Freddy Krueger and Shakes the Clown (which, if you haven’t seen, is a black comedy masterpiece). Heads explode, balloon animals are made from entrails, and bunny rabbits are pulled out of hapless victims’ throats as Stitches gets his revenge against Tommy and his friends. It’s a gloriously gory good time that is also a surprisingly sweet coming of age story. I credit the latter’s effectiveness to a very talented young cast who really gave me a sense of investment in these characters. I was actively rooting for the heroes throughout rather than just accepting them as fodder for Noble’s killer clown, and, when the film was over, I thought about how I would actually like to see more of Tommy and his (surviving) friends in some other adventure. The film’s not just expertly cast, however; McMahon simply hits all the right notes, here, especially in his choice of cinematographer, Patrick Jordan, who lends the movie an impressive sense of atmosphere and polish that, when paired with the imaginative and convincing FX work, gives Stitches a look that belies its low-budget origins.
Stitches comes to Blu-ray courtesy of MPI/Dark Sky Films in a 1.78:1 1080p presentation that’s crisp and colorful, and perfectly captures the high-contrast look of the film’s myriad night sequences. Blacks are deep and true, and the light grain gives the digital source a welcome filmic warmth. The accompanying 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track is very responsive, with rich bass and crystalline highs, natural sounding dialogue, and an abundance of well-placed directional cues.
Extras include a commentary track with Noble and McMahon, a Making-of featurette that includes interviews with all of the film’s principal actors and contributors, a hilarious blooper reel, and trailers for this and other MPI/Dark Sky releases.